Hot Tears For A Close Friend: Rabbi Eitam Henkin HY”D
by Rabbi Yechiel Goldhaber
translated by Daniel Tabak
I shall never forget when I first met Rabbi Eitam Henkin HY”D three years ago. At the time I had begun preparing a study on the parting of minds in the kollels of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem 150 years ago. I managed to get my hands on a lot of rare sources, but the morass of material only beclouded the depths of the goings-on in the city at the time. The main purpose of my study was to ascertain the causes of dispute between the various ethnic groups and kollels, but the facts grew ever larger and more ramified, and soon obscurity overtook clarity. As the saying goes, I could not see the forest for the trees.
One key element in the conflict centered upon Rabbi Yechiel Michel Pines. On the one hand, Rabbi Shmuel Salant viewed him as an ally, but on the other, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, head of the rabbinical court of Brisk, loathed him. My study successfully identified this dispute as one of the main points of contention that whipped everyone in the city into a frenzy, a flashpoint whose consequences lasted decades.
Needless to say, I had the articles by Eitam Henkin about Rabbi Pines in front of me. I read them multiple times, and felt as if he had lived and breathed the alleyways of the Old City in those times. I struck up a connection with him, and he shared with me his textured perspective of the city with all its troubles. From then one, not two weeks passed when we did not speak by telephone about it.
About a year ago I needed to finish an article on Rabbi Shmuel Salant’s search for a rabbi who would support him as he entered his twilight years. I uncovered some rare documentation that shed new light on this episode, but to my dismay, I could not find anyone with whom to speak in order to clarify this complicated issue. Only Eitam Henkin lent me his ear.
In the meantime, we continued to speak about his great-grandfather Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l. I would contribute some of what I knew, and he would include me in his work on collecting and compiling material about his great-grandfather. Our discussions took us from Lithuania all the way to the United States, and everything in between.
We wrote each other a lot, and we had many conversations. He would begin each conversation by saying that he was very busy with his studies and editing articles, yet he still devoted many minutes to me.
I tried to get a hold of Eitam Henkin many times on the phone to obtain some point of clarification, but he was not always available. Quite often his wife Na’ama HY”D picked up the phone and I would “complain” that I was having trouble “catching” him on the phone. When I explained to her the urgency of the matter, because I had to publish the article in two weeks’ time, her answer was characteristic of a Torah scholar’s wife! She would respond very simply: “my husband is soaring in Torah study. I too take care not to disturb him.” When I heard sentences like those, I felt deep embarrassment.
His textual analysis was razor-sharp; he took pains with every word and letter. More than he questioned the written letter he investigated and interrogated the unwritten word or sentence absent from the document — “why was it missing?” he would ask, along with a barrage of similar questions.
His answers and conclusions were honest and artless; one never found him resolving a perplexity with a forced answer. How rare is that! His level of understanding in any given topic was very advanced, as someone who had completed many tractates of the Talmud along with their commentaries.
His modesty far exceeded what one could guess. He never boasted. His honesty was ever-present, in every field and topic, be it in Torah study, academic research, or this-worldly life.
Our final conversation took place between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I called him to wish him a Shana Tova. I mentioned the well-known bafflement about the statement of the Rabbis that there were never such good days for the Jewish people as Yom Kippur, when Jewish girls would involve themselves in happy matters…but is it not the most frightening day of the entire year? He responded on the spot:
“If every positive thing leads to happiness, then isn’t it logical that something negative that becomes positive should generate even greater joy? Within the darkness light can be seen. That is the deeper truth of repentance done out of love, from which willful sins are treated as merits; the negative causes an outburst of happiness. The Jewish girls chose this day specifically to concern themselves with matters of love, for there is no love quite like God’s love for his wayward servants who have reconciled themselves with him.”
Such words befit the one who uttered them…
Few are comparable to this wise young man, whose comings and goings were marked by humility, who was as familiar with the paths of the Heavenly Jerusalem as he was with the roads of Mateh Binyamin.
May Eitam and Na’ama’s memory be blessed.